A Looming Sale and Another Losing Season Complicate Ohtani’s Future

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Spirited chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!” filled the warm night air here this week. Pinstriped Yankees fans dominated the crowd in appreciation of Aaron Judge and what might be coming for the slugging outfielder. With considerably less gusto, beleaguered Angels fans answered those M.V.P. calls in favor of Shohei Ohtani as a respite from their grim reality.

Mired in a string of disappointing summers, and with the team owner Arte Moreno’s surprise announcement last week that he is exploring a sale of the club, Ohtani’s Angels future is more uncertain than ever.

Baseball’s only two-way star can become a free agent following the 2023 season, and Angels fans have been nervous since he issued what sounded like an ultimatum after last season’s home finale: He loves the fans and the atmosphere of the team, Ohtani said, but what he most wants is to win.

“That’s the biggest thing for me,” he said then. “I’ll leave it at that.”

Eleven months later, even if graded on a curve, the Angels remain unable to pass. Come October, Ohtani will be left waiting to see whether he can win a second consecutive Most Valuable Player Award while he watches the postseason from a distance.

Moreno’s Angels are headed for a club-record-tying seventh consecutive losing season. Only once before, from 1971 to 1978, has this organization lost this much for so long.

Ohtani homered in the Angels’ win over the Yankees on Monday.Credit…Michael Owens/Getty Images
In his last start, Ohtani kept the powerful Toronto Blue Jays scoreless for seven innings.Credit…Cole Burston/Getty Images

What makes the current run so different from those 1970s Angels is that the club has produced four American League most valuable players in the past eight seasons: Mike Trout (2014, 2016, 2019) and Ohtani (2021). And yet the losing continues. The Yankees’ appearance here this week only serves as a reminder that the Angels have not won a playoff game since beating the Yankees in Game 5 of the 2009 American League Championship Series — a series eventually won by New York.

Since then, Moreno has thrown more and more good money after bad, signing expensive free agents such as Albert Pujols (10 years, $240 million), Josh Hamilton (five years, $125 million) and Anthony Rendon (seven years, $245 million). The team has no postseason success to show for those millions.

“It’s always a question mark because you don’t know who’s going to come in,” Trout said of the suddenly uncertain direction of the club before Tuesday night’s game. “We’ll see how it goes. Obviously, I’ve got a lot more years on my deal.”

Trout is in it for the long haul. He signed a 12-year, $426.5 million deal before the 2019 season that tethers him to the Angels through 2030.

Meanwhile, Ohtani, the team’s best pitcher, and its best hitter other than Trout, has one season left after this one before hitting free agency.

Things have come a long way since Ohtani announced his decision to join the Angels after the 2017 season. His arrival had been so thrilling that Billy Eppler, the team’s general manager at the time, completely missed his chair and collapsed to the floor while trying to take in the news. The team has had fairly little joy since, and a great deal of turnover.

Few pairings in major league history can match the star power of Mike Trout and Ohtani. But they are headed toward their fifth straight losing season as teammates.Credit…Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Moreno fired Eppler after the 2020 season, replacing him with Perry Minasian. Eppler landed on his feet and is now the top baseball operations executive for the first-place Mets.

The Angels also changed field managers three times in four years since the end of Mike Scioscia’s 19-year run. Brad Ausmus replaced Scioscia for the 2019 season, but Eppler was ordered to fire him after just one year because Moreno wanted to hire Joe Maddon. Minasian, with Moreno’s permission, fired Maddon in June. Phil Nevin is the team’s interim manager.

“Certainly, there are a lot of fan bases around the country that wish their owner would bring in marquee players, spend the money that Arte’s spent,” Nevin said in defense of his team’s owner. “So the criticism he gets is completely unjust, in my opinion. Fans get to come and watch the two best players in the game, perhaps the best baseball player in the world, play every day.”

It was not always this way for the Angels. Moreno purchased the club from the Walt Disney Company just after the team won its lone World Series title, in 2002. The Angels proceeded to play in five of the next seven postseasons as Moreno enjoyed a prolonged honeymoon with fans, buoyed by one of the first moves he made as the owner: lowering beer prices at Angel Stadium. In those heady, early days, his Angels lured free agents like Vladimir Guerrero, Bartolo Colon and Bobby Abreu. Guerrero won an M.V.P. Award (2004) and Colon won a Cy Young Award (2005).

The Angels have continued to rank among the top payrolls in the game under Moreno, including this year’s $179 million, which ranks 10th in the majors. But since 2009, the Angels have made the playoffs just once, in Trout’s first M.V.P. season, in 2014. They were swept in a division series.

A lot has changed since 2017. Arte Moreno, far left, is exploring selling the Angels, Manager Mike Scioscia, second from left, retired and General Manager Billy Eppler, second from right, was fired.Credit…Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

As the losing intensified in recent years, so, too, did Moreno’s struggles for a stadium deal. He was attempting to purchase Angel Stadium and the surrounding land from the city of Anaheim when the F.B.I. in May accused Mayor Harry Sidhu of illegally handing insider information about the sale to the ball club. The deal collapsed and the mayor resigned.

By selling, Moreno’s years of frustration will end with a windfall. He purchased the club for $183.5 million in 2003. In March, Forbes magazine valued the team at $2.2 billion.

“It has been a great honor and privilege to own the Angels for 20 seasons,” Moreno, the first — and, still, only — Latino majority owner of an M.L.B. club said in last week’s statement. “As an organization, we have worked to provide our fans an affordable and family-friendly ballpark experience while fielding competitive lineups which included some of the game’s all-time greatest players.”

One of them did not see this decision coming.

“I definitely wasn’t thinking it was going to happen,” Trout said. “Looking back, obviously, Arte took a chance on me when I was a kid. I appreciate all he’s done. When you hear things like that, being here for so long, it definitely was a shock.”

Ohtani was not made available by the team to comment Tuesday. Neither was John Carpino, the club’s president. Moreno has not publicly spoken since issuing last week’s statement.

Aaron Judge and Ohtani were teammates at the All-Star Game last month, and are the front-runners for A.L. M.V.P. Judge will be a free agent in the off-season; Ohtani will be one after 2023.Credit…Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The uncertainty and the losing have created several questions. Chief among them: Will Ohtani even want to stay when free agency beckons next off-season? How much money will a presumably new ownership group be willing to spend if he does?

Judge, 30, declined the Yankees’ contract offer this spring of seven years and $213.5 million, and will test free agency in the off-season. Juan Soto, who is 23 and not eligible for free agency until after the 2024 season, spurned a Washington Nationals offer of 15 years and $440 million, leading to his trade to San Diego.

Trout’s contract remains the largest in M.L.B. history by total value, followed by the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts (12 years, $365 million), the Mets’ Francisco Lindor (10 years, $341 million) and the Padres’ Fernando Tatis Jr. (14 years, $340 million). Seattle’s Julio Rodríguez last week agreed to a complicated deal that will guarantee him $210 million to $470 million over the next decade-plus.

The various contracts have created an expectation that a player like Ohtani, unique in today’s game, can effectively name his price.

“I think it’s all up in the air,” Trout said Tuesday regarding how a new owner might affect Ohtani’s future with the Angels. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. If the team does sell and we find out who the owner is, obviously things can change. You don’t know.”

He said he had not discussed the sale of the team or Ohtani’s future with Ohtani. But Trout hopes Ohtani stays, and he promised that “once the team gets sold, if it does, there will be conversations.”

For now, there is little the Angels can do but plod toward yet another reset this winter.

“I just know from reading about the histories of teams and organizations selling in every sport, really, that it will take time,” Nevin said, adding that he knows Moreno “loves this organization and will put it in good hands.”

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